Just like real people, your characters have unique personalities, backgrounds, and worldviews—they should also have unique voices. Newbie authors often miss this lesson, and as a result, all 15 characters in their novel end up sounding exactly like the author. Here’s how I took my writing to the next level by giving my characters their own distinct voices.
There are two layers behind character voice: how they speak, and why they speak that way. Here are a few examples:
Big vocabulary Insecure, trying to impress
Big vocabulary Highly educated
Longwinded Used to work as a teacher or lecturer
Blunt Doesn’t care about others’ feelings
Blunt Comes from a country where directness is valued
Loud voice Lives with a hard-of-hearing relative
Loud voice Attention-seeking
Notice, from the list above, that each how has multiple why possibilities. Also note that some of the whys on this list are personality traits (such as insecurity and arrogance), while others are related to the character’s environment (such as occupation and hometown).
Your job is to first understand your character’s whys, from both personality and environment perspectives. There are many factors to consider: character traits, education, upbringing, location, sense of humor, political and religious views, and overall attitude toward the world. Are they a glass-half-full or glass-half-empty type of person? A leader or a follower? What are they afraid or superstitious of? Do they appreciate sarcasm, puns, or black humor? What kind of local slang or colloquialisms might they be exposed to? What job or hobbies do they have? Are they timid, assertive, or brash? Self-confident or insecure? How old are they, and how emotionally mature?
Next, determine how these whys inform how the character speaks. This means vocabulary, grammar, sentence length and structure, directness and subtext, just to name a few. This also includes verbal tics, similes and metaphors, and references to history, pop culture, etc. For instance, a college professor will likely have a wider vocabulary than a high-school dropout. Someone who studied abroad in France might exclaim “Mon Dieu!” while someone who grew up in Alabama might say “Criminy!” A professional engineer may use words like “delta” and “deviation,” while a hobbyist gardener may make analogies to roots, leaves, and flowers.
Then make a list of each character’s key hows and whys. Your lists might look like this:
12-year-old girl from New Jersey Middle-aged alien from Neptune
Hates school, but loves athletics and gym Expensive education, has traveled extensively
Uses lots of slang, sentence fragments Speaks more formally, full sentences, big words
Makes references to sports Makes references to home planet
Sarcastic sense of humor Doesn’t understand Earth humor
Once you have a rough list for each of your important characters, do a round of editing just for dialogue. Print out your manuscript and skim through the whole thing, highlighting each character’s dialogue in a different color (you can do this digitally, but I much prefer doing it by hand). Then go back to page one, and read through only one color of dialogue. You’ll notice immediately if that character is repeating himself, saying things that don’t fit his voice, or using a verbal tic too often. Make edits as needed, then go back to page one and start reading through the next color. It’s time-consuming but well worth it.
And remember, crafting distinct voices doesn't mean slathering on the dialect or slang. For instance:
Character A: “Well, hawney, sun’s a-settin’, so yew’d better git on down the road thurr.”
Character B: “Croikey! Is it dusk a’ready, mate? Oi’d better get outta here ‘fore Oi get eaten boi a croc!”
Character C: “Dude, I’ve never seen, like, a real crocodile. That would be, like, super intense, like, you know?”
For one thing, no reader wants to wade through this jungle of phonetics. For another, this is so heavy-handed that the characters come across as stereotypes rather than real people. The art of good character voices is much subtler. Here’s a better example:
Character A: “Gettin’ dark out there. You better get on home.”
Character B: “You’re right, mate. Hope the crocs aren’t out tonight.”
Character C: “I’ve never seen a crocodile—you know, a real one.”
See how these lines give a flavor of the characters behind them, without choking readers with dialect?
As with dialect, verbal tics and pet phrases will add depth to your dialogue, but be careful not to overuse them. If a character says “I dunno” or “Holy crap!” every other paragraph, readers will notice—and not in a good way. Same goes for references, analogies, and metaphors. As with anything, moderation is key.
Hopefully, this gives you a good starting point for your own character voices. Now dive into that story and start talking!